Standing in the same room where President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, President Bush celebrated "a great anniversary of justice and equality" Thursday, reaching out to a predominantly black audience four months before the presidential election.
"Forty years ago, in many parts of America, basic rights were observed or denied based entirely on race," Mr. Bush said in the East Room.
"A person looking for a job or even a place to stay the night could be turned away merely because the color of the skin, and that person had very little recourse under federal law," the president said. "Forty years ago this week, that system of indignity and injustice was ended by the Civil Rights Act signed into law in this very room."
Also in the room were Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of the former president, and Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the first black Supreme Court justice.
Mr. Bush cautioned that "discrimination did not end that day."
"But from that day forward, America has been a better and fairer country," he said.
The president's appearance prompted criticism of his civil rights record from the campaign of Democratic rival John Kerry. Mr. Bush drew just 9 percent of the black vote in 2000, the lowest since Barry Goldwater garnered just 6 percent after his campaign against Johnson in 1964, and has tried sporadically to attract more black voters.
Kerry's campaign accused Mr. Bush of "backsliding" on civil rights throughout his White House term and said the appearance was hollow, given Mr. Bush's record on civil rights.
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said President Bush had nominated judges who would roll back civil rights, had "effectively closed" the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and had opposed affirmative action.
In January 2003, Mr. Bush asserted that a program of racial preferences for minority applicants at the University of Michigan was "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution." He took a position against the program in a Supreme Court case — acting on the birthday of civil rights hero Martin Luther King.
In his remarks, President Bush went out of his way to praise Johnson — like Mr. Bush, a native Texan.
"As a young man, he'd seen the ugly effects of discrimination. As president, he was determined to fight it by law, regardless of the political risk," the president said. "One Southern senator warned him, 'It's going to cost you the election.' He replied, 'If that's the price I've got to pay, I will pay it gladly.'"
Johnson signed the bill on July 2, 1964, after a record two-month filibuster by Southern senators. The act banned segregation in any facility offering public services and outlawed discrimination in hiring.
Mr. Bush did not mention another quote ascribed to the Democratic president about the political consequences of signing the act.
"There goes the South for a generation," Johnson said at the time.